Laureate reflects on history of Penn State's choral community

By Tony Leach, 2009-10 Penn State laureate

Before Penn State football had a coach,* choral singing was alive and well at our University. Let’s take a few moments to recall some of the significant contributions that choirs from Penn State have made over many decades as well as current service to the University Park campus and beyond.
*(Although the football team has existed since 1887, George Hoskins was the first coach, from 1892 to 1895.)

The Penn State Glee Club has a rich distinguished legacy of service within the campus community. Over the years, this organization has been led by many distinguished conductors, listed according to the year they began their service:

1888: George C. Butz;
1893: Charles M. Atherton;
1912: Clarence C. Robinson;
1922: Richart W. Grant;
1942: Frank Gullo;
1967: Lewis Spratlan;
1969: D. Douglas Miller;
1970: Bruce Trinkley; and
2005 to present: Christopher Kiver.

The choir has toured extensively throughout Pennsylvania and the eastern region of the United States as well as Texas and Florida, and outside the country to Canada, Trinidad and Tobago. In recent years, various recording projects have provided wonderful opportunities for Penn State alumni and others to experience the rich choral tradition of male choral singing at Penn State to be available at the touch of a button. During the current academic year, the Glee Club performed at the 2010 Eastern Division Conference of the American Choral Directors Association and will spend several weeks touring New Zealand at the end of the spring semester. The Hi-Lo’s remain the chamber ensemble of Glee Club.

The Penn State University Choir is the oldest mixed choir ensemble within the School of Music. Conductors of "U Choir," as it is nicknamed, include Willa Taylor, who served as director of choral activities from 1933 to 1966; others are listed according to the year they began their service:

1966: Raymond Brown -- During his tenure, the Penn State University Choirs and Singers traveled on several regional tours for performances with community based and professional orchestras such as the Johnstown Symphony, Harrisburg Symphony and Northeastern PA Symphony, and were in residences with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Tommie Irwin, assistant director of choirs, served with Ray Brown for many, many years and helped to mentor several generations of singers and burgeoning choral conductors;
1985: James Jordan;
1988 :Dan Dauner;
1992: Lynn Drafall; and
1995: Anthony Leach. Since 1995, I have conducted U Choir in many campus performances and international travel to the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Austria, Germany and Italy. Sine Nomine, which began as a student-conducted ensemble within U Choir, is presently conducted by undergraduate conducting interns.

The Penn State Chamber Singers were organized in 1981 by D. Douglas Miller. At that time, Miller also served as conductor of the Penn State Symphony Orchestra. The Chamber Singers specialize in music from the Renaissance through the present era that is suited for a reduced number of singers. The choir has collaborated with the Penn State Opera Workshop, local high schools and, in earlier years, shared concert tours with the Penn State Concert Choir. Christopher Kiver has served as conductor of the Chamber Singers since 2005.

The Penn State Concert Choir remains the premiere choral organization within the School of Music. Organized by D. Douglas Miller in 1982, the choir performed for the 1994 Eastern Division ACDA Conference in Washington, D.C., and completed annual tours to Canada and the eastern region of the U.S. Collaborations with the Penn State Wind Ensemble and the Chamber Orchestra continue to distinguish this choir as a high-caliber opportunity for the finest singers at Penn State. Since 2001, Lynn Drafall has served as conductor of the Concert Choir. Under her leadership, the choir has traveled to Florida, Texas, Arizona and Nevada for performances and internationally to England, Wales, Germany and Austria.

Essence of Joy was organized by me, its founding and current director, in 1991 to perform music at the annual M. L. King Jr. Banquet sponsored by Penn State's Forum on Black Affairs. Twenty-three singers comprised the first edition of EOJ. Our existence until 1994 was literally as a "pick-up choir" that performed wherever and whenever the invitation came for campus events, with a few off-campus performances along the way. Music 93 is the academic course associated with Essence of Joy, and our repertoire consists of sacred and secular music from the African and African-American choral traditions. The choir has performed extensively in many areas of the United States and for such prestigious organizations as the American Choral Directors Association, Music Educators National Conference and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. International tours to the Czech Republic, Poland, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea have been significant in the development of this choir. Essence of Joy has become my professional "calling card" to the choral community. Penn State made room for my gifts in choral music and music education, and Essence of Joy has become one of the premiere choral organizations on campus and beyond.

Lynn Drafall organized the Oriana Singers in 1995 to pursue choral excellence within the women’s choral repertoire. This choir has performed with the Penn State Opera Workshop, the Eastern Division of the American Choral Directors Association and the Pennsylvania Music Educators Annual Conference. The choir has participated in joint choral commissioning of musical works and supports THON at Penn State. Their mission encompasses choral excellence and service to the Penn State community.

Women’s Chorale and the Campus Choir are conducted by Jayne Glocke. The Chorale has existed for a long time within the choral structure of the School of Music and for many years was lead by graduate assistants in choral conducting. Campus Choir was organized primarily to provide skills in personal musicianship to better equip singers to audition for other choirs within the School of Music. Singing Lions was organized by Bill Noyes in 1972 as the official show choir at Penn State. Pete Kiefer served as mentor and leader of this organization for many, many years until his retirement from the University. The choir has traveled annually across America during spring break and presents fall and spring campus concerts.

Until 1981, Penn State sponsored a campus-wide religious service that convened on Sunday mornings in either Schwab Auditorium, Eisenhower Chapel or the Recital Hall in Music Building I of the School of Music. The Chapel and Meditation Choirs provided music for these events as well as for masses with the Penn State Catholic community. James Beach served as conductor of the Mediation Choir and also conducted choirs at Penn State Schuylkill for many years. Distinguished organists who accompanied these choirs included George Ceiga and P. June Miller.

Persons who have held the position of director of choral activities at Penn State include the following, again listed according to the year they began their service:

1933: Willa Taylor;
1966: Raymond Brown;
1985: D. Douglas Miller;
2001: Lynn E. Drafall.

The choral resource room within the School of Music is named in honor of Willa Taylor. Choral endowments at Penn State have been established by the following and/or in honor of the following: Jim and Suzi Hess, D. Douglas Miller, Bruce Trinkley, Paul and Mary Catherine Hagan, Jack Platt, Frank Gullo, William and Bette Detterer and the Essence of Joy Alumni Singers.

In recent years, Penn State's choirs have established new traditions and events on and off campus, including the following:

  • Winterfest, A Choral Celebration;
  • Undergraduate Choral Conducting Internship Program;
  • Choral Collage Concert during Parents Weekend; 
  • Celebration of African-American Spirituals. This event began in 1995 and since 2003 has provided 18 new compositions premiered by Essence of Joy, including works by Moses Hogan, Roland Carter, Roy Belfield, Raymond Wise, Rosephanye Powell, Glenn Burleigh, Anthony Leach and others. Since 2009, this event has become the Celebration of African-American Music Festival and involves participants from all areas of the School of Music;
  • Many of our choirs have also demonstrated their visible and financial support to THON, which is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world and benefits the Four Diamonds Fund to support research and families affected by pediatric cancer;
  • The President’s Concert, established in 2007 and hosted by Penn State President Graham Spanier, has been held in Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, Pa. (featuring the Concert Choir); Terrace Theater, The Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C. (Chamber Singers and Essence of Joy), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts ,Philadelphia, Pa. (Concert Choir) and most recently, on March 25, 2010, Carnegie Hall, New York City (Penn State Philharmonic).
  • More than 400 Penn State students participate in faculty-conducted choral ensembles.

For information on campus performances and tours presented by Penn State choirs, please visit the Web site for the Penn State School of Music, at http://www.music.psu.edu/ online.

My personal and professional life has been positively enhanced since 1976 when I had my first encounter with the Penn State Choirs. The music, people, travel and professional affirmation that have sustained me over the years makes me proud to know that "We Are Penn State!"

* * *

Leach is scheduled to conduct Essence of Joy performances on Tuesday, March 30, at Penn State Altoona and on Sunday, April 24, at the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association (PMEA) Conference in Pittsburgh. For a list of choral performances by Leach's ensembles, go to http://live.psu.edu/story/43416.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010